This is growing far too easy.
The last thought still echoed in Zorro's mind as he carefully snuck up behind the one bandit the others had left awake on guard duty. Zorro assumed that the man wearing scruffy clothes was supposed to make certain his three compadres stayed safe as they slept, all the while making doubly certain that no other outlaws mistook their fire for an invitation to attack them in the dark. His third duty was to make sure that Zorro didn't sneak up on them and do exactly what he was planning to do anyway: capture them.
To that end, Zorro knew that taking out the guard before he was able to alert the others to his presence was absolutely necessary. How he did it was not necessary, but it sure was fun!
Zorro slowly made his way to the area of boulders collected just to the guard's left. When he had gained a shadowy place among the rocks that kept the light of the fire from reflecting off the unmasked portion of his face, he softly scuffed his boots back and forth on the rocky path. As had worked many times before, the guard broke out of his protective crouch to investigate. Zorro instantly melted into the deeper shadow of the surrounding rocks, leaving the guard to scratch his head in perplexity, wondering just where that noise he'd heard was coming from. He never suspected the source of the noise to be standing right behind him, a black, ether soaked cloth already in hand.
It was the work of a second for Zorro to snake his left arm around the man's neck while his right hand held the cloth firmly to the man's nose and mouth. The cloth muffled the guard's shouts for help to sound more like unintelligible grunts as he thrashed for a few seconds, then went limp, and Zorro slowly lowered him to the ground. Smiling, the masked man straightened to make certain that Toronado could see his command to wait before once again fading into the surrounding darkness.
He dispatched another of the sleeping men a moment later in the same way. The third bandit didn't even wake up to give any kind of a struggle when Zorro thrust the cloth over his mouth and nose, but the groans of the second bandit had roused the fourth. Zorro moved quickly before he could start any trouble.
“Juan!” the man called into the dark. “Jimee! Alonzo! Uff!”
Zorro's glove met the man's stubbly jaw at that moment, and he almost fell into the still burning fire as he joined his friends in unconsciousness. Zorro shook the pain out of his stinging fist as he then tucked the ether-soaked cloth back into his black sash. “Their jaws are getting harder all the time... or I'm getting old,” he mused aloud, noting that punching a man in the jaw hadn't made his hand hurt this much just a few years ago. Ignoring the pain in his knuckles, he hauled the outlaw he'd punched closer to his friends. “Let's get you boys wrapped for your trip to Los Angeles.”
First, he washed any lingering ether fumes off his gloves using the soap he'd specifically brought along just for that purpose. Then, he let his shrill whistle split the cool night air, and Toronado's whinny sounded pleasantly nearby where he'd asked the stallion to stay. Now he allowed the sound of the great horse to lead him in the correct direction of the guard that he'd first knocked unconscious. He swiftly bound the man and carried him back to the fire, located the bandit's horses picketed in a clearing of grass, loaded all four bandits onto the waiting animals' backs, tied their hands to their feet under the horses' bellies, and left them hanging practically upside down as he carved his signature letter 'Z' into the back of their vests with the tip of his sword. Once finished, he critically surveyed his work: he'd successfully captured the four bandits wanted for robbing the Monterey coach, and hadn't shed a single drop of blood in order to do it - a good night's work. Satisfied, he gathered the reins of the four horses in his hands, climbed aboard Toronado, then cantered the entire group toward the pueblo.
Increasingly, Zorro found that his activities had restricted themselves to the apprehension of outlaws in the dark of night rather than fighting the oppression of the Spanish subjects he'd sworn to protect. The Alcalde's behavior ever since that horrifying experience under Emissary Risendo's rule had grown increasingly benign until his senseless taxation was just a rotten memory of the past. Old taxes had been repealed, and no new taxes had been instated. It was as if de Soto's political ambition had been smothered out of him by the events that took place while the Emissary was in Los Angeles. And now, after Diego's talk with de Soto in the graveyard earlier that day, he understood the reasons behind this puzzling behavior of the Alcalde's.
Of course, de Soto hadn't pardoned Zorro, hadn't really freed him from the Spanish bounty on his head, but the fact that Zorro could now concentrate on capturing bandits rather than becoming a captured bandit himself made his life so much simpler. He no longer had to ride out in defense of the people, unless those people were bedeviled by outlaws like the four scruffy characters that he was currently leaving at the cuartel's hitching post. He made certain that the tied horses had food and water to last the night, and that the bandits were firmly trussed to their mounts, but other than that, let them hang to be discovered by the lancers in the morning. There was no call for his arrest that he had to thwart just to get out of the pueblo, no men he had to punch, no resistance at all. Truly, this was getting to be so easy that he was almost growing bored.
Zorro had vaulted onto Toronado's waiting back and turned his head in the direction of home and a well deserved handful of oats when his attention was arrested by a faint glow of light flickering from the walled-in garden located behind the mission. Curious as to who could possibly be awake at this time of night, Zorro nudged Toronado to the mission wall instead of directing him out of the pueblo. When a roof ledge was right above him, he boosted himself onto the tiled roof, letting Toronado roam free again, then made his way carefully across the roof to the back of the mission. He slipped around the end of the bell tower just as the odd strains of a hooting sound reached his ears.
Peeking over the adobe edge of the roof and into the garden, Zorro was able to make out the form of Padre Benitez in the light of a single lantern. The man was dressed in his priest's robes and staring raptly into the garden's one tree. The hooting sound reached Zorro a second time, followed by the faint strains of an answering hoot coming from the lower branches of the tree.
The padre was clearly doing some late night bird watching... or in this case, owl watching. Zorro listened to the Padre's hooting call and the answering wail several times before the owl suddenly lifted off and flew in the direction of the ocean, easily visible in the sky lit by stars and moon. Zorro watched it go for a moment, doing nothing more than looking at how its wing span matched that of Toronado's shadow on the plaza ground as it passed overhead. His soft sigh allowed the tension of capturing bandits fly away with the owl.
“Señor Zorro,” Padre Benitez quietly called up to him from the garden. “It is you. Come on down - you have nothing to fear in my garden... except perhaps eating rotten vegetables.” He chuckled at his own bad joke, and stepped away from the tree to wait for Zorro as the bandit climbed down from his perch on the mission's roof. The soft thud of the masked man's boots sounded in the silence shrouding the garden as Zorro landed beside the Padre.
“Doing a little bird watching, I see,” Zorro announced in a hushed voice sure not to awaken the mission's other inhabitants.
“I was owl watching, actually,” the Padre corrected. “That owl has spent the last three nights in that tree, hooting loud enough to wake the dead... pardon the expression. Tonight I decided to join him rather than lie awake, listening to him.” He laughed at his words. “I'm afraid I scared him off, much to everybody's delight, I'm sure.”
“What kind of owl was it?” Zorro asked the robed man. “It was so large - much larger than the barn owls typical of California.”
The Padre's scrunched nose was clear in the light from his lantern. “I'm not sure. I think it's called a cat owl; it was large, as you say. Did you see those tufts sticking out of his head?”
“Yes. Are they ears, do you suppose?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps they're just feathers sticking out of its head. Have you ever seen one so close to Los Angeles before?”
“No. I've seen only two in all my years of tracking at night, and those two were in more wooded areas.”
Padre Benitez shrugged. “Well, that's one being of the night that you don't need to catch.”
Zorro's smile came through in his voice as he visualized chasing the strange creatures across California. “Thank goodness! Toronado hates flying.”
Benitez chuckled. “I feel lucky to have seen it, no matter what it was.” His pronouncement finished, he turned to more fully face the bandit. “Now, what brings you to the pueblo at such a time of night?”
“I was just delivering a gift to the cuartel,” Zorro quipped. “I was heading out of the pueblo when I heard you playing with our owl friend.”
Padre Benitez chuckled anew. “Yes, he and I made quite the symphony.”
“It was a true joy to listen to. But now that I know you're safe, I'll let you get to bed. Adios.”
Zorro was about to jump back up to the mission roof when he felt an arresting hand on his arm. “Zorro, I'm glad you stopped by... I have something to tell you.”
Not him too. It seemed as if lately everybody had news for the man known as Zorro. “Yes?”
Thus prompted, Padre Benitez folded his hands into his robes to stand in a very contrite attitude. “I haven't thanked you yet for paying the missions' taxes to the Emissary. I guess that you now own the mission.”
Zorro kept his smile glued to his face at the careless mention of the Spanish Emissary. He didn't want to get into a discussion about family relations when it wasn't common knowledge that he should even care who was related to the Emissary. “It was the de la Vega's money,” Zorro said now. “I simply freed it from the bank. They own the mission more than I do.”
Padre Benitez gazed at Zorro for another moment, still studying the masked man. “There are those who don't understand how you even knew those funds needed freeing.”
Zorro cocked his head. “It's my business to know everything about everybody.”
“True. But how did you know that the de la Vega funds had been impounded in the first place?”
Zorro cocked his head the other way. “As I said...”
The Padre gave an impatient wave of his hand. “Yes, yes, knowing things is your business.”
When he didn't go on, Zorro leaned in the direction of the garden wall as if he needed to leave. “No thanks are necessary. I'm just glad there was no bloodshed. If that's all, I'll leave you and the de la Vega mission for the night.” He turned to go.
The Padre's whispered words stopped him. “I just wanted you to know that was a very noble thing you did, Diego.”
Zorro whipped back to face Benitez, but strove not to react any further to his true name. “Pardon me, Padre? Did you say something?”
Benitez looked up at Zorro, affirmation in his eyes. “Don't play coy with me, young man. Now is not the time.”
Zorro again cocked his head, this time in confusion. “Coy? I assure you, Padre...”
“Assure me all you want. It was still a noble thing to do. I just wanted to personally thank you, Diego. Can you get your money back before the Emissary's Royal Guardsmen leave for Spain?”
Zorro's seeming confusion increased. “That's the second time you've called me a name other than 'Zorro.' Do you know something you're not telling me?”
Benitez chuckled as he replaced his hands in his robe. “I've known who you are for some years. I've simply never said anything before now.”
That blunt confession stunned Zorro enough to make him openly gape at the holy man. “Forgive me... but I thought you just said...
“You heard correctly.” The Padre's soft voice barely even reached Zorro, though he was standing right next to him. “I suppose now would be a good time to also thank you on the people's behalf. You've done an outstanding job in fulfilling your Christian duty these past years. I just worry that sense of duty may be your undoing.”
This caught Zorro's attention in spite of his confusion. “What do you mean?”
Benitez's eyes lit up at Zorro's lack of argument about his claim, taking that lack as a form of confirmation. “So you admit to being... who you are.”
“I didn't say that,” Zorro maddeningly negated. “I was just asking for clarification.”
Suddenly the Padre's friendly expression fell away. The hand that now wrapped around Zorro's arm to further arrest the bandit was like iron. “Stop this foolishness before you get fatally hurt, Diego.”
Zorro looked even more confused. “This foolishness? I don't...”
“Yes, you do,” the Padre insisted. “I'm speaking of your possible death, and how it affects your promise to the Señorita.”
Zorro shook his head; this couldn't be happening. He was being scolded like a disobedient child by Padre Benitez. “She knows I will fulfill that promise as soon as I can remove this make. But it's not yet time to...”
“Your mask will come off when you want it to come off,” Benitez unsympathetically retorted. “Why are you making her wait?”
Making her wait? “I'm not...”
“You must be afraid of something... what?”
Zorro suspiciously eyed the priest, and slowly argued, “Zorro fears nothing, particularly Victoria Escalante. The mask will come off when I'm certain that knowledge of my identity will do her no harm, and not a minute before. I'm not who you think I am. Buenos Noches.” He sprang up, clambered over the mission roof, and disappeared into the night.
Go on to part 5.
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